Northern Ireland

Sinn Fein accused of ‘walking through assembly voting lobbies with DUP and Jim Allister’

Sinn Fein

Stormont Opposition leader Matthew O’Toole speaks during today's Opposition Day at Stormont
Stormont Opposition leader Matthew O’Toole speaks during today's Opposition Day at Stormont

Sinn Féin has been accused of aligning itself with the DUP and Jim Allister to block Stormont reform.

The assembly’s two biggest parties joined with the TUV leader in voting against two SDLP motions aimed at advancing institutional reform, on what was the first Opposition Day of the mandate.

As Stormont’s official Opposition, the SDLP gets one day each month on which it dictates assembly business and chooses what motions MLAs will debate.

The party tabled three motions in all – two on reform, including a commitment from Sinn Féin and the DUP that they would not collapse the institutions, and one on public sector pay.

Its non-binding motion calling for public sector pay talks to be concluded by the end of the financial year received unanimous backing, however, its bid to secure support for reform of the institutions floundered, despite support from Alliance and the Ulster Unionists.

Stormont deputy First Minister Emma Little Pengelly (left) and First Minister Michelle O'Neill (right) speak to the media during a visit to a childcare facility
Stormont Deputy First Minister Emma Little Pengelly (left) and First Minister Michelle O'Neill. PICTURE: REBECCA BLACK (Rebecca Black/PA)

At the conclusion of a day which saw speaker Edwin Poots highlight how the first and deputy first minister had breached assembly conventions by failing to provide a required response to the first motion on reform, Opposition leader Matthew O’Toole rounded on Sinn Féin.

“After years of bemoaning the toxic boycott by the DUP and the antics of extreme unionism and loyalism, and both Michelle O’Neill and Conor Murphy making positive noises, Sinn Féin walked through the lobbies with the DUP and Jim Allister today to block reform – not once, but twice,” the South Belfast MLA said.

“Not only that but they could barely bring themselves to engage in debate or be upfront with their intentions – Michelle O’Neill even broke long established convention by refusing to respond to the debate.”

Mr O’Toole said the two largest parties had “teamed up... to defend their toxic power to veto the functioning of government”.

The Executive Office has yet to respond to queries regarding the breach of convention. In a statement, the assembly said there was a “normal expectation” that ministers would be in attendance for business relating to their departments.

“In cases such as this, it is for ministers to be held accountable for their decisions, as happened today,” the statement said.

During Executive Office questions, Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly was again challenged by the Opposition leader over why she would not commit to remaining in post for the rest of the mandate.

“The best way to secure and stabilise the future of our government here in Northern Ireland is to build those constructive working relationships,” the DUP MLA said.

“We work within the framework set down by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement as amended by St Andrews – that work is appropriately, in terms of reform and the consideration of reform, being taken forward by the Aerc (Assembly and Executive Review Committee) and we look forward to reading their recommendations in detail.”

Earlier in the chamber, Sinn Féin’s Deirdre Hargey said it was “bizarre” that the motion being debated referenced a decline of public services but made “no mention at all of the British-Tory government and their regressive policies”.

“If we’re seriously to address the underlying root causes of inequality, and indeed develop world-class public services then we all must work collectively to address the funding shortfall, challenge austerity and transform our public services to meet the needs of our workers, families and communities,” she said.

The DUP’s Jonathan Buckley described the motion on Stormont reform as “petty point-scoring”.

He described the suspensions over the last 25 years as “regrettable”.

“The inescapable truth is that we live in a contested place,” he said.

“Consensus politics will be the only way we can stave off instability.”